Neither Bob Burton nor Vonn Hardman could recall the year, but they certainly remembered a circus act called “The Gorilla Show.”
There was no gorilla involved.
In the early 1960s, traveling sideshows were common on college campuses. They usually involved a challenge — oftentimes they appeared simple but were borderline unattainable — and the winner received a cash prize, an irresistible thought for young men looking to make a name for themselves.
The challenge on the campus of Ohio State University was daunting: Wrestle a “gorilla” inside a steel cage sitting on a flatbed trailer. Though it is wearing a muzzle for the contestants’ protection, the “gorilla” will instinctively go to the corner and grab the bars with all its might. Put him on the ground within one minute and $5 is yours.
“Everybody thought it was a gorilla,” Burton said. “I knew it wasn’t a gorilla because a gorilla would pull your arms and legs off. Of course, as I later found out, a chimpanzee can, too.”
Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing maybe 150 pounds but lightning-quick and strong as an ox, Burton was the only member of the Buckeyes football team — or anyone else among the 300-person crowd — to step forward.
Fifty years later, a simple question was posed.
“Nobody else would,” he quipped without hesitation.
Burton was fearless, but not stupid. He asked the promoter if the chimp had ever been defeated. The response was, “Yes.”
So in stepped an even more confident Burton in front of a rowdy audience. The chimp was slightly bigger and no doubt stronger — the average male is five times more so than a human — but Burton was cocky enough to believe he could be the David who slayed Goliath.
Sure enough, Burton got the chimp and took him to the ground — twice — but soon realized he was in over his head.
“He shook me like a rag doll,” Burton said. “My head was flopping forward and sideways.”
Four minutes later, the bell finally rang. Only the football players cheered for Burton, who exited with his face covered in blood. The other 200 people wanted to see him get killed.
“Hell, anybody in their right mind would think he’s nuts,” said Hardman, the Ohio State punter who became one of Burton’s best friends. “Let me ask you something: Would you get in a jail and fight a chimp? What happens if he gets that (muzzle) off?
“Bob is something else.”
The promoter was so impressed he left Burton in the cage longer than normal because it was such a show.
“He said, ‘That’s the best match he’s ever had,”’ Burton said. “I asked him again, ‘But you said he got beat!’ and he laughed and said, ‘Oh, he was just a little baby then.’ It was kind of funny in a way.”
Only a man like Burton can find humor in such an experience. The highly intelligent 72-year-old still oozes with pride. The truth is, the only thing that really matters to him is instilling the same sense of self into young wrestlers so they can become men.
This is why the personable and well-respected Sharon Township resident will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame as the Al Thomas Award winner — the same man who introduced Burton to organized wrestling — during June 13 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.
Robert David Burton was born on Dec. 13, 1940 and lived on Granger Road just north of the Highland campus. His father, also his namesake, was an accomplished amateur boxer and gymnast during World War II.
Burton, sister Terry Kay and brother Gary were encouraged to use horizontal gym bars at the family home for exercise. This allowed them to become extraordinarily agile and well-conditioned, coupled with the fact Burton ran to school every day, rain or shine.
For all of his accomplishments at Highland — multiple letters in football, basketball and baseball and eight Medina County League titles in track and field — Burton probably would have given up athletics if not for Roy Gienke.
The longtime Highland educator, an accomplished basketball player at Liverpool High in the mid-1940s, was Burton’s seventh-grade hoops coach in 1953. Though he lined up every potential player based on height, Gienke kept Burton despite his diminutive stature.
It was a lesson that has stuck with Burton. While he never developed as a basketball player — he was a marginal backup for some very solid teams — he learned size is a blessing, but heart trumps everything.
Burton was a halfback on football teams void of talent — the Hornets were 4-20-2 over his final three years after going 8-0 in 1955 — and lost most of his senior season to a broken ankle. He also played shortstop and outfield for the baseball team, but found track to be his true love.
When Burton dug his feet into the cinder — there were no starting blocks in those days — he was in his element. There were no teammates to let him down, only his talent.
To put it mildly, Burton was the star of a deep and talented program that ran away with the MCL Meet in each of his four years. He won two titles in the long jump, 100-yard dash and high jump and one in the pole vault and 220 while breaking Medina County Sports Hall of Famer Mike Webster’s school records in the process.
Burton never advanced to state because Highland competed against schools three times its size in the postseason, and his MCL Meet records in the 100, 220 and long jump were erased by Lodi’s Bill Heffelfinger and Buckeye’s Tom Masters — both Medina County Sports Hall of Famers — in 1960.
But leave no mistake. Pound for pound, Burton’s versatility was unmatched.
“That’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met for his size, and maybe period,” said Hardman, who is still a Northeast Ohio scout for Ohio State’s football program. “God almighty, he’d take you on two at a time.”
Wrestling was a different story. Highland didn’t have a program — more on that later — and Burton’s only experience was what he called “wrasslin’” against former Highland football coach Jim Tyree, who later achieved great success at Stow, and larger classmates in gym class.
A meeting with Gazette sports editor Thomas changed everything.
Thomas was planning on writing a feature story on the pint-sized star who later became a black belt in Jiu jitsu and karate and a brown belt in Judo. Thomas walked into the gym, where Burton was “wrasslin’” on mats used to protect basketball players from injury when slamming into the brick wall of what is now Granger Middle School.
Thomas was impressed while watching Burton “stacking these guys up” with catlike quickness. Thomas then approached Burton and asked if he’d practice with the wrestling program at Medina.
Despite his commitment to basketball, Burton, who still can’t get enough of individual sports, was hooked.
“I said, ‘Boy, that’d be kind of neat,”’ he said.
Burton received a waiver from Highland to practice with Medina, whose coach, Jim Currens, also left a huge impression.
“He taught me a lot of things in those six weeks I wrestled — things that have stuck with me most of my life,” Burton said. “He said, ‘You have to get after them and don’t beat yourself.”’
Even at Ohio State, where Burton had no intention of competing in athletics because he wanted to become a veterinarian, more chance meetings led to more accomplishments.
Burton noticed a group of football players flirting with some unsuspecting coeds during freshman orientation. Seeing an opportunity to stick his nose in — he has never been confused with being shy — Burton chatted up the group.
Among them was future NFL tight end Charles Bryant, the nephew of legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Respecting the fact the extremely physically fit Burton was unafraid of the big, bad Buckeyes, Bryant asked Burton to join the football team.
So into Ohio Stadium walked Burton, who lied about his weight so coach Woody Hayes would maybe notice him. He then kept stride for stride with the fastest players and blew up the first-string offense as a scout team inside linebacker. This ticked off Hayes to no end, even though it earned Burton a spot on the team in the process.
“On the first play with all that wrestling and coordination, he bounced back up like a rubber ball and messed it up,” Hardman said while attempting to control his laughter. “Woody started to get mad at that point. They went back, ran the next play and he fought off blocks from the halfback and end and messed up the play again. Now Woody’s getting to an 8 on the Richter Scale quick. Woody went back and put the tackle and end on him, and they knocked Bob out.”
Burton’s tenacity caught the eye of the team trainer, who referred Burton to Ohio State wrestling coach Casey Fredericks. The problem was Fredericks, the Buckeyes’ coach from 1948-76, only wanted state champions.
Not to be denied, Burton was “lucky” enough to have Don Schonauer, who was later inducted into the Ohio Wrestling Officials Hall of Fame, and Dick Bliss, later a legendary coach at Aurora, as roommates. They took Burton under their wing and taught him all the moves necessary to be successful, and Burton studied his craft by reading any instructional book he could get.
“My sophomore year, I was a varsity wrestler,” he said. “We had wrestle-offs and I could beat the guys in the room. That’s all I had to do.”
Even though Burton fully understands now the Buckeyes were the Big Ten’s doormat, he lettered as a 167-pounder in 1961 and ’62. He also earned walk-on status for the track and field team and, because he was an avid hunter, made the rifle team as well because he wanted to “do everything, just like in high school.”
Burton told Hayes he was going to nix the latter two sports because of spring football practice commitments, but eventually left a scholarship offer from Hayes on the table and focused on wrestling and schoolwork due to his love of individual sports.
Burton graduated from Ohio State in 1963 with a degree in science. He doesn’t regret spurning the chance to play on the same football team as Paul Warfield, Bob Ferguson and Matt Snell because of the respect he received.
“I was so happy to go to Ohio State, where they graded you on what you could do instead of who you knew,” he said. “That made me so proud. That meant a lot to me.”
Forging a legacy at Highland did as well.
Highland principal Dick Chaffee offered Burton a chance to give a wrestling demonstration to a school board member in 1965. If the board member came away impressed, a team would be formed.
Burton passed the test by explaining wrestling involved little overhead because many teams didn’t use uniforms and they could practice almost anywhere. He then accepted an offer to be an assistant coach because the school preferred a teacher to be in charge.
Daryl Bryson replaced Dave Heckle as head coach in 1967. Almost instantly, Bryson and Burton forged perfect chemistry. Bryson took care of the program’s philosophy, schedule and fitness, while Burton specialized with the hands-on aspect.
“Bob showed up one day and it was the best thing that ever happened to Highland High School,” Bryson said.
Burton’s resume is as impressive as any coach — head or assistant — in county history: In just 16 seasons with the Hornets, he mentored eight state champions, 29 other placers and was the lead assistant on the 1975 Class AA state championship team.
Those numbers would have been much higher had Burton’s career at Highland not ended in August 1980, when he was the favorite to replace the recently resigned Jim Florian. The Hornets were the favorite to win the upcoming Class AA state title.
However, Florian changed his mind, re-applied and was given back the job. Disappointed, Burton left and coached roughly 10 more years at Wadsworth, Norton, Medina and Massillon Perry.
What made Burton successful were coaching philosophies simple in design, yet tough to master. What made him unique, however, was his ability to pump a kid’s confidence so high that the doorways had to be widened so his head could fit through it.
Burton’s preachings, in no particular order, included:
• Running for conditioning is a total waste of valuable time. The best thing to do is go 110 percent on the mat while honing skills to perfection. The more moves a wrestler knows, including five-point ones he jokingly calls “trick moves,” the more likely he will understand how to chain them together, as well as counter.
“It doesn’t take a lot of wrestling to be a good wrestler, but you have to know what a guy can do to ya,” Burton said. “If you get tricked once, you don’t get tricked a second time.”
• Never, ever be intimidated. Everyone can be beat.
“Don’t ever look at a guy’s arms and figure out how tough he is or how much hair he’s got on his body,” he said. “Kids grow up with these beliefs, and I’ve proven them wrong so many times these kids go there and fight for me. I believed in them and they believed in me.”
• Mental toughness can’t be understated. Burton doesn’t preach it. He lives it.
“I’ll never forget the day when he went in for hernia surgery, and back then they’d cut you open,” said Mike Houska, a two-time state placer who is following in Burton’s footsteps by serving on the Highland School Board. “He was in the hospital a day and the doctors said, ‘You’ve gotta spend the night,’ but he walked out of the hospital and into wrestling practice wearing his gown, led the team in leg lifts and did them longer than the wrestlers. No one could believe it.”
• Freshmen belong on varsity. May the best man win.
“Kids are raised to believe seniors are tougher. I just didn’t believe that,” Burton said. “I told (eventual 1980 state champion) Dave Gangle, ‘Dave, I’m going to tell you a secret. You beat him one time and he’ll never show up again.’ He said, ‘No, no. You’re telling me a story.’ I said, ‘David, the first thing is work your butt off, beat the kid and he will quit.’ He listened to me, and that kid quit.”
• Even in a loss, there is no sense of doubt. Next time, unleash fury, but be gracious when you get revenge.
• Read a kid and find what makes him tick. Bring him up emotionally, and then push him to new heights.
“Bob was never shy on being complimentary,” Bryson said. “If you look for the strengths of people and complement them, even more strengths are going to develop. It’s an infectious thing. Bob never, ever scolded or berated an athlete in my presence — never, ever, ever. He empathized with them.”
• Always know the rules. They can be the difference between winning and losing.
“I always bought rule books for my wrestlers,” Burton said. “I was the only coach in the state that did that.”
• Never give up on a kid. Burton points to Warren Vetter, who was cut as a freshman but was state runner-up as a senior in 1971. He also explains the case of Ron Leonard, who was told to pick up another sport. Leonard later became 1980 state-runner up.
“I liked (Leonard) because it upset him to lose,” Burton said. “Show me a happy loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
• As a coach, never stop learning. Just when you think you know it all, someone will show you how to do it better — even if it’s one of your wrestlers. Burton found this out while trying to teach Houska, who went on to be an All-American at Hiram, an ankle pick.
“All at once, I’m watching him and he was doing it better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Burton said. “I started teaching what he was doing.”
Burton eventually left the official coaching ranks, but he never gave it up completely. Since the early 1990s, he has been a private instructor for wrestlers all over Northeast Ohio. His most notable recent pupils have been Highland’s Tyler Houska, the son of Mike who won the 2009 Division II state title at 215 pounds, and multi-time state placers Adam Kluk and Tyler Bloniak. Another was Dave Wenger, Copley’s first state champion in 1977, who was among dozens of other state placers that have sparkled under Burton’s tutelage.
Oftentimes, Burton will drive to the wrestler’s home, rearrange the furniture in the living room and get to work on honing skills.
Why? Because even in his golden years, Burton refuses to give up what he loves.
“I feel that anyone I spend time with is going to be a better wrestler,” he said. “I go to a lot of people’s houses, and I don’t care if they have money or not. I want kids who want to learn.
“I don’t always judge by how well they do at state. I really base it on how well they think they can do themselves. If they don’t think they make a team and make it, I’m happy. When they can place at the state and beat guys who were there the year before, you’ve accomplished a lot.”
So, too, has Burton. The results speak for themselves.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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